A passion for projects drives Eaton’s efforts

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Albert Lea doesn’t have an office called Official Booster, but if you had to pick someone, it might just be Jean Eaton.

Since moving here nearly 30 years ago, Eaton has dedicated thousands of hours to projects meant to improve Albert Lea’s quality of life and to attract tourism. The Pelican Breeze, the Blazing Star Trail, the Story Lady Doll and Toy Museum, the Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament &045; the list fills a page and spills over onto the back.

From the smile with which she greets visitors to a coffee shop &045; everyone who walks in seems to know her &045; down to the sailboat pin on her lapel, Eaton radiates enthusiasm for public life and for Albert Lea’s potential as a recreational destination.

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&uot;Albert Lea is a recreational hub,&uot; Eaton said. &uot;We just haven’t put all the pieces together yet.&uot; She cites the lakes, 250 miles of snowmobile trails, golf courses, the state park, the city pool and 38 city parks as evidence of the city’s potential.

Eaton has helped Albert Lea and its people strive for that potential as a Riverland instructor and dean, Convention and Visitors Bureau director and now United Way director. But she said the community has given her just as much in return.

&uot;We didn’t intend to stay here,&uot; Eaton said. &uot;This was just a starting point. But we fell in love with the community and the people, and now we would never leave. This community has been very good to us and our kids.&uot;

But running for mayor was not something she considered &045; until this year, when somebody she respects told her she would be perfect for the job. &uot;He told me, ‘You have a passion for projects in this community,’&uot; Eaton said.

But it takes more than passion to get things done, and Eaton said persistence is the real key.

&uot;I guess you need to have a can-do attitude and you always have a plan A, B and C,&uot; she said. &uot;You make sure you work with all the stakeholders and you don’t give up.&uot;

As she makes her first foray into an election campaign, Eaton said she senses that people want something more from their city leadership. One woman told her only three things have happened here in the last eight years: The new high school and the new Home Depot store and Applebee’s restaurant.

Eaton knows that more has happened &045; she’s been involved in much of it &045; but said the comment shows that people want highly visible development.

&uot;I think there’s a large undercurrent of our community wanting something to happen,&uot; she said. &uot;When I’m door-knocking, there’s many people wanting something to happen. So many of them see the beauty of this town. I think things are falling into place for good things to happen.&uot;

As United Way director, Eaton was on the scene along with other staffers and volunteers to help Farmland employees in the aftermath of last year’s fire. But along with the tragedy that unfolded, Eaton said the fire provides opportunity, thanks to the former site’s lakefront location.

She envisions a public dialogue to determine the best use for the site, which the city hopes to own, and said she wants everyone involved in the process.

&uot;You go to the community and you listen and that’s how you empower people and excite people and create momentum to get things done,&uot; she said. &uot;You don’t just get it done at city hall. It’s the whole community.&uot;

Eaton said she also supports the city’s recent efforts to redevelop portions of downtown, and points to ongoing efforts on the Blazing Star bike trail and lake cleanup as important steps toward making the city more inviting. That, in turn, makes the area more attractive to business and industry, she said.

When it comes to economic development, Eaton may have an inside track in the business world; her experience at Riverland included time teaching sales and marketing and she helped start a pilot program for displaced homemakers. She was Minnesota Marketing Educator of the Year at one point. And after Riverland, she founded Eaton Image Development, which coaches clients on business etiquette, attitude and dress.

&uot;That carries over into everything I do,&uot; she said. She still conducts seminars in the region, teaching business sense to groups.

Her experience has taught her that in business, there’s no substitute for human relationships.

&uot;It’s all about packaging and relationships when you think about it,&uot; she said of marketing Albert Lea. &uot;You package it, you sell it, but relationships are very important in business and industry. If somebody has a relationship, it’s much easier to get interest.&uot;

That means everybody has a duty to promote Albert Lea to people they know elsewhere, she said.

It’s a job Eaton has been doing for years, and a duty she said is key to the job of mayor. And although the position is not supposed to be full time, Eaton said it will take a full-time effort.

&uot;There’s no such thing as part time,&uot; she said.